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Church of England

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Church of England
The Church of England badge is copyright  The Archbishops' Council, 2000.
Supreme Governor Elizabeth II
Primate Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury
Headquarters Church House
Great Smith Street
London SW1P 3AZ
United Kingdom
Territory England
Isle of Man · Channel Islands
Gibraltar · Continental Europe
Members 27 million baptised members

Anglicanism Portal

The Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England and the Mother Church of the worldwide Anglican Communion. The church considers itself within the tradition of Western Christianity and dates its formal establishment principally to the mission to England by St Augustine of Canterbury in AD 597.

As a result of Augustine's mission, the church in England came under the authority of the Pope. Initially prompted by a dispute over the annulment of the marriage of King Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon, the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church in 1534 and became the established church by an Act of Parliament in the Act of Supremacy, beginning a series of events known as the English Reformation. During the reign of Queen Mary I and King Philip, the Church was fully restored under Rome in 1555. Papal authority was again explicitly rejected after the accession of Queen Elizabeth I when the Act of Supremacy of 1558 was passed. Catholic and Reformed factions vied for determining the doctrines and worship of the church. This ended with the 1558 Elizabethan settlement, which developed the understanding that the church was to be both Catholic and Reformed:

  • Catholic in that it views itself as a part of the universal church of Jesus Christ in unbroken continuity with the early apostolic church. This is expressed in its emphasis on the teachings of the early Church Fathers, as formalised in the Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian creeds.
  • Reformed in that it has been shaped by some of the doctrinal principles of the 16th century Protestant Reformation, in particular in the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

During the 17th century, political and religious disputes raised the Puritan and Presbyterian faction to control of the church, but this ended with the Restoration. The contemporary Church of England still continues to contain several doctrinal strands, now generally known as Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical. This reflects early divisions. In recent times, tensions between theological conservatives and progressives find expression in debates over women's ordination and homosexuality within the church. The Church of England has ordained women as priests since 1994. A proposed measure which would have allowed the consecration of female bishops was lost by a narrow margin in the General Synod of the Church in 2012.

Since the Reformation, the Church of England has used an English liturgy. The Book of Common Prayer was based on original writings and translations from the Latin services by Thomas Cranmer. This liturgy has been updated and modernised at various times. The church also adopted congregational singing of hymns and psalms.

The governing structure of the church is based on the traditional parishes which are gathered into dioceses presided over by a bishop. The Archbishop of Canterbury is the Primate of All England and a focus of unity for the whole Anglican Communion worldwide. The General Synod is the legislative body for the church and comprises bishops, clergy and laity. Although it is only the established church of England, its measures must be approved by both Houses of Parliament including the non-English members.

The Church of Ireland and the Church in Wales separated from the Church of England in 1869 and 1920 respectively and are autonomous churches in the Anglican communion; Scotland's national church, the Church of Scotland, is Presbyterian but the Scottish Episcopal Church is in the Anglican communion.


Early history

According to tradition, Christianity arrived in Britain in the 1st or 2nd century, during which time southern Britain became part of the Roman Empire. The earliest historical evidence of Christianity among the native Britons is found in the writings of such early Christian Fathers as Tertullian and Origen in the first years of the 3rd century. Three Romano-British bishops, including Restitutus, are known to have been present at the Council of Arles in 314. Others attended the Council of Sardica in 347 and that of Ariminum in 360, and a number of references to the church in Roman Britain are found in the writings of 4th century Christian fathers. Britain was the home of Pelagius, who opposed Augustine of Hippo's doctrine of original sin.

Anglo-Saxon Christianity

While Christianity was long established as the religion of the Britons at the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasion, Christian Britons made little progress in converting the newcomers from their native paganism. Consequently, in 597, Pope Gregory I sent Saint Augustine of Canterbury from Rome to evangelise the Angles. This event is known as the Gregorian mission and is the date the Church of England generally marks as the beginning of its formal history. With the help of Christians already residing in Kent, Augustine established his church at Canterbury, the capital of the Kingdom of Kent, and became the first in the series of Archbishops of Canterbury in 598. A later archbishop, the Greek Theodore of Tarsus, also contributed to the organisation of Christianity in England.

Synod of Whitby and papal authority

While some Celtic Christian practices were changed at the Synod of Whitby, the Church in the British Isles was under papal authority from earliest times. Queen Bertha of Kent was among the Christians in England who recognised papal authority before Augustine arrived and Celtic Christians were carrying out missionary work with papal approval long before the Synod of Whitby.

Hereford is one of the church's 43 cathedrals, many with histories stretching back centuries.

The Synod of Whitby established the Roman date for Easter and the Roman style of monastic tonsure in Britain. This meeting of the ecclesiastics with Roman customs with local bishops was summoned in 664 at Saint Hilda's double monastery of Streonshalh (Streanæshalch), later called Whitby Abbey. It was presided over by King Oswiu, who did not engage in the debate but made the final ruling.

Secession from Rome

In 1534 King Henry VIII separated the English Church from Rome. A theological separation had been foreshadowed by various movements within the English church such as Lollardy, but the English Reformation gained political support when Henry VIII wanted an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn. Pope Clement VII, considering that the earlier marriage had been entered under a papal dispensation and how Catherine's nephew, Emperor Charles V, might react to such a move, refused the annulment. Eventually, Henry, although theologically opposed to Protestantism, took the position of Supreme Head of the Church of England to ensure the annulment of his marriage. He was excommunicated by Pope Paul III.

Henry maintained a strong preference for traditional Catholic practices and, during his reign, Protestant reformers were unable to make many changes to the practices of the Church of England. Indeed, this part of Henry's reign saw the trial for heresy of Protestants as well as Roman Catholics.

Under his son Edward VI, more Protestant-influenced forms of worship were adopted. Under the leadership of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, a more radical reformation proceeded. A new pattern of worship was set out in the Book of Common Prayer (1549 and 1552). These were based on the older liturgy but influenced by Protestant principles. The confession of the reformed Church of England was set out in the Forty-two Articles (later revised to thirty-nine). The reformation however was cut short by the death of the king. Queen Mary I, who succeeded him, returned England again to the authority of the Pope, thereby ending the first attempt at an independent Church of England. During Mary's reign, many leaders and common people were burnt for their refusal to recant of their reformed faith. These are known as the Marian martyrs and the persecution has led to her nickname of "Bloody Mary".

Stained glass window in Rochester Cathedral, Kent

Mary also died childless and so it was left to the new regime of her half-sister Elizabeth to resolve the direction of the church. The settlement under Elizabeth I (from 1558), known as the Elizabethan Settlement, developed the via media (middle way) character of the Church of England, a church moderately Reformed in doctrine, as expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles, but also emphasising continuity with the Catholic and Apostolic traditions of the Church Fathers. It was also an established church (constitutionally established by the state with the head of state as its supreme governor). The exact nature of the relationship between church and state would be a source of continued friction into the next century.

Stuart period

For the next century, through the reigns of James I, who ordered the creation of what became known as the King James Bible, and Charles I, culminating in the English Civil War and the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, there were significant swings back and forth between two factions: the Puritans (and other radicals) who sought more far-reaching Protestant reforms, and the more conservative churchmen who aimed to keep closer to traditional beliefs and Catholic practices. The failure of political and ecclesiastical authorities to submit to Puritan demands for more extensive reform was one of the causes of open warfare. By Continental standards, the level of violence over religion was not high, but the casualties included King Charles I and Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Under the Commonwealth and the Protectorate of England from 1649 to 1660, the bishops were dethroned and former practices were outlawed, and Presbyterian ecclesiology was introduced in place of the episcopate. The 39 Articles were replaced by the Westminster Confession, the Book of Common Prayer by the Directory of Public Worship. Despite this, about one quarter of English clergy refused to conform to this form of State Presbyterianism.

With the Restoration of Charles II, Parliament restored the Church of England to a form not far removed from the Elizabethan version. One difference was that the ideal of encompassing all the people of England in one religious organization, taken for granted by the Tudors, had to be abandoned. The religious landscape of England assumed its present form, with the Anglican established church occupying the middle ground, and those Puritans and Protestants who dissented from the Anglican establishment, and Roman Catholics, too strong to be suppressed altogether, having to continue their existence outside the National Church rather than controlling it. Continuing official suspicion and legal restrictions continued well into the 19th century.

19th century

By the Fifth Article of the Union with Ireland 1800, the Church of England and Church of Ireland were united into "one protestant episcopal church, to be called, the united church of England and Ireland". Although this union was declared "an essential and fundamental Part of the Union", the Irish Church Act 1869 separated the Irish part of the Church again and disestablished it, the Act coming into effect on 1 January 1871.

Overseas developments

As the British Empire expanded, British colonists and colonial administrators took the established church doctrines and practices together with ordained ministry and formed overseas branches of the Church of England. As they developed or, beginning with the United States of America, became sovereign and/or independent states many of their churches became separate organizationally but remained linked to the Church of England through the Anglican Communion.

Doctrine and practice

Canterbury Cathedral from the southwest. It houses the cathedra or throne of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is the mother church of the Diocese of Canterbury (east Kent) and the Church of England and also a focus for the Anglican Communion.
Richard Hooker (1554–1600), one of the most influential figures in shaping Anglican theology and self-identity

The canon law of the Church of England identifies the Christian scriptures as the source of its doctrine. In addition, doctrine is also derived from the teachings of the Church Fathers and ecumenical councils (as well as the ecumenical creeds) in so far as these agree with scripture. This doctrine is expressed in the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Ordinal containing the rites for the ordination of deacons, priests, and the consecration of bishops. Unlike other traditions, the Church of England has no single theologian that it can look to as a founder. However, Richard Hooker's appeal to scripture, church tradition, and reason as sources of authority continue to inform Anglican identity.

The Church of England's doctrinal character today is largely the result of the Elizabethan Settlement, which sought to establish a comprehensive middle way between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Church of England affirms the Protestant Reformation principle that scripture contains all things necessary to salvation and is the final arbiter in doctrinal matters. The Thirty-nine Articles are the Church's only official confessional statement. Though not a complete system of doctrine, the articles highlight areas of agreement with Lutheran and Reformed positions, while differentiating Anglicanism from Roman Catholicism and Anabaptism.

While embracing some themes of the Protestant Reformation, the Church of England also maintains Catholic traditions of the ancient church and teachings of the Church Fathers, unless these are considered contrary to scripture. It accepts the decisions of the first four ecumenical councils concerning the Trinity and the Incarnation. The Church of England also preserves Catholic order by adhering to episcopal polity, with ordained orders of bishops, priests and deacons. There are differences of opinion within the Church of England over the necessity of episcopacy. Some consider it essential, while others feel it is needed for the proper ordering of the church.

The Church of England has, as one of its distinguishing marks, a breadth and "open-mindedness". This tolerance has allowed Anglicans who emphasise the Catholic tradition and others who emphasise the Reformed tradition to coexist. The three "parties" (see Churchmanship) in the Church of England are sometimes called high church (or Anglo-Catholic), low church (or evangelical) and broad church (or liberal). The high church party places importance on the Church of England's continuity with the pre-Reformation Catholic Church, adherence to ancient liturgical usages and the sacerdotal nature of the priesthood. As their name suggests, Anglo-Catholics maintain many traditional Catholic practices and liturgical forms. The low church party is more Protestant in both ceremony and theology. Historically, broad church has been used to describe those of middle of the road ceremonial preferences who leaned theologically towards liberal Protestantism.

Worship and liturgy

The Church of England's official book of liturgy as established in English Law is the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), but there are many examples of local variations throughout the churches of the Anglican Communion. In addition to this book the General Synod has also legislated for a modern liturgical book, Common Worship, dating from 2000, which can be used as an alternative to the BCP. Like its predecessor, the 1980 Alternative Service Book, it differs from the Book of Common Prayer in providing a range of alternative services, mostly in modern language, although it does include some BCP-based forms as well, for example Order Two for Holy Communion. (This is a revision of the BCP service, altering some words and allowing the insertion of some other liturgical texts such as the Agnus Dei before communion.) The Order One rite follows the pattern of more modern liturgical scholarship.

The liturgies are organised according to the traditional liturgical year and the calendar of saints. The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist are generally thought necessary to salvation. Infant baptism is practiced. At a later age, individuals baptised as infants receive confirmation by a bishop, at which time they reaffirm the baptismal promises made by their parents or sponsors. The Eucharist, consecrated by a thanksgiving prayer including Christ's Words of Institution, is believed to be "a memorial of Christ's once-for-all redemptive acts in which Christ is objectively present and effectually received in faith".

The use of hymns and music in the Church of England has changed dramatically over the centuries. Traditional Choral evensong is a staple of most cathedrals. The style of psalm chanting harks back to the Church of England's pre-reformation roots. During the 18th century, clergy such as Charles Wesley introduced their own styles of worship with poetic hymns.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the influence of the Charismatic Movement significantly altered the worship traditions of numerous Church of England parishes, primarily affecting those of evangelical persuasion. These churches now adopt a contemporary worship form of service, with minimal liturgical or ritual elements, and incorporating contemporary worship music.

Women's ministry

Women were appointed as deaconesses from 1861 but they could not function fully as deacons and were not considered ordained clergy. Women have been lay readers for a long time. During the First World War some women were appointed as lay readers known as "Bishop's Messengers". After that no more lay readers were appointed until 1969.

Legislation authorising the ordination of women as deacons was passed in 1986 and they were first ordained in 1987. The ordination of women as priests was passed by the General Synod in 1993 and began in 1994. In July 2005 the synod voted to "set in train" the process of allowing the consecration of women as bishops. In February 2006 the synod voted overwhelmingly for the "further exploration" of possible arrangements for parishes that did not want to be directly under the authority of a woman bishop. On 7 July 2008 the Synod voted to approve the ordination of women as bishops and rejected moves for alternative episcopal oversight for those who do not accept women bishops. Actual ordinations of women to the episcopate will require further legislation which was narrowly rejected in a vote at General Synod in November 2012.

In 2010, for the first time in the history of the Church of England, more women than men were ordained as priests (290 women and 273 men).


Due to its status as the established church, in general anyone may be married, have their children baptised or their funeral in their local parish church, regardless of whether they are baptised or regular churchgoers.

Between 1890 and 2001 churchgoing in the United Kingdom declined steadily. In the years 1968 to 1999, Anglican Sunday church attendances almost halved, from 3.5 per cent of the population to just 1.9 per cent. One study published in 2008 suggested that if current trends were to continue, Sunday attendances could fall to 350,000 in 2030 and just 87,800 in 2050.

In 2011, the Church published statistics showing 1.7 million people taking part in a Church of England service each month, a level maintained since the turn of the millennium; approximately one million participating each Sunday and three million taking part in a Church of England service on Christmas Day or Christmas Eve. The Church also claimed that each year 30% attend regular Sunday worship on at least one occasion; more than 40% attend a wedding in their local church and still more attend a funeral there. Nationally the Church of England baptises one child in eight.

The Church has 18,000 active ordained clergy and 10,000 licensed lay ministers. In 2009, 491 people were recommended for ordination training, maintaining the level at the turn of the millennium, and 564 new clergy (266 women and 298 men) were ordained. More than half of those ordained (193 men and 116 women) were appointed to full-time paid ministry.


Dioceses of Church of England
Province of Canterbury
Province of York
( interactive version)

Article XIX (Of the Church) of the 39 Articles defines the church as follows:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

Despite the complexities of the structure, the Church of England at its heart views the local parish church as the basic unit.

The British monarch has the constitutional title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The canon law of the Church of England states, "We acknowledge that the Queen’s most excellent Majesty, acting according to the laws of the realm, is the highest power under God in this kingdom, and has supreme authority over all persons in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil." In practice this power is often exercised through Parliament and the Prime Minister.

In addition to England, the jurisdiction of the Church of England extends to the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and a few parishes in Flintshire, Monmouthshire and Radnorshire in Wales (the present Church in Wales was an integral part of the Church of England until 1920). Expatriate congregations on the continent of Europe have become the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe.

The church is structured as follows (from the lowest level upwards):

Many English villages have small parish churches such as this in Toot Baldon
  • Parish is the most local level, often consisting of one church building and community, although many parishes are joining forces in a variety of ways for financial reasons. The parish is looked after by a parish priest who for historical or legal reasons may be called by one of the following offices: vicar, rector, priest in charge, team rector, team vicar. The first, second, and fourth of these may also be known as the 'incumbent'. The running of the parish is the joint responsibility of the incumbent and the Parochial Church Council (PCC), which consists of the parish clergy and elected representatives from the congregation. The Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe is not formally divided into parishes.
  • There are a number of local churches that do not have a parish. In urban areas there are a number of proprietary chapels (mostly built in the 19th century to cope with urbanisation and growth in population). Also in more recent years there are increasingly church plants and Fresh expressions of church, whereby new congregations are planted in locations such as schools or pubs in order to spread the Gospel of Christ in fresh and non-traditional ways.
A map showing the diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. The seven archdeaconries are colour-coded.
  • Deanery, e.g., Lewisham or Runnymede. This is the area for which a rural dean is responsible. It consists of a number of parishes in a particular district. The rural dean is usually the incumbent of one of the constituent parishes. The parishes each elect lay (non-ordained) representatives to the deanery synod. Deanery synod members each have a vote in the election of representatives to the diocesan synod.
  • Archdeaconry, e.g., the seven in the Diocese of Gibraltar in Europe. This is the area under the jurisdiction of an archdeacon. It consists of a number of deaneries.
  • Diocese, e.g., Diocese of Durham, Diocese of Guildford, Diocese of St Albans. This is the area under the jurisdiction of a diocesan bishop, e.g., the Bishops of Durham, Guildford and St Albans, and will have a cathedral. There may be one or more assisting bishops, usually called suffragan bishops, within the diocese who assist the diocesan bishop in his ministry, e.g., in Guildford diocese, the Bishop of Dorking. In some very large dioceses a legal measure has been enacted to create "episcopal areas", where the diocesan bishop runs one such area himself and appoints "area bishops" to run the other areas as mini-dioceses, legally delegating many of his powers to the area bishops. Dioceses with episcopal areas include London, Chelmsford, Oxford, Chichester, Southwark, and Lichfield. The bishops work with an elected body of lay and ordained representatives, known as the diocesan synod, to run the diocese. A diocese is subdivided into a number of archdeaconries.
  • Province, i.e., Canterbury or York. This is the area under the jurisdiction of an archbishop, i.e. the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Decision-making within the province is the responsibility of the General Synod (see also above). A province is subdivided into dioceses.
  • Primacy, i.e., Church of England. In addition to his specific authority in his own province, each archbishop is "Primate of All England" (Canterbury) or "Primate of England" (York) and has powers that extend over the whole country—for example his license to marry without the banns (marriage licence).
  • Royal Peculiar, a small number of churches more closely associated with the Crown, and a very few with the law and are outside the usual church hierarchy though conforming to the rite. These are outside episcopal jurisdiction.

All rectors and vicars are appointed by patrons, who may be private individuals, corporate bodies such as cathedrals, colleges or trusts, or by the bishop or directly by the Crown. No clergy can be instituted and inducted into a parish without swearing the Oath of Allegiance to Her Majesty, and taking the Oath of Canonical Obedience "in all things lawful and honest" to the bishop. Usually they are instituted to the benefice by the bishop and then inducted by the archdeacon into the possession of the benefice property—church and parsonage. Curates are appointed by rectors and vicars, or if priests-in-charge by the bishop after consultation with the patron. Cathedral clergy (normally a dean and a varying number of residentiary canons who constitute the cathedral chapter) are appointed either by the Crown, the bishop, or by the dean and chapter themselves. Clergy officiate in a diocese either because they hold office as beneficed clergy or are licensed by the bishop when appointed (e.g. curates), or simply with permission.


Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury

The most senior bishop of the Church of England is the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is the metropolitan of the southern province of England, the Province of Canterbury. He has the status of Primate of All England. He is the focus of unity for the worldwide Anglican Communion of independent national or regional churches. Justin Welby has been Archbishop of Canterbury since the confirmation of his election on 4 February 2013.

The second most senior bishop is the Archbishop of York, who is the metropolitan of the northern province of England, the Province of York. For historical reasons (relating to the time of York's control by the Danes) he is referred to as the Primate of England. John Sentamu became Archbishop of York in 2005. The Bishop of London, the Bishop of Durham and the Bishop of Winchester are ranked in the next three positions.

Diocesan bishops

The process of appointing diocesan bishops is complex and is handled by the Crown Nominations Committee which submits names to the Prime Minister (acting on behalf of the Crown) for consideration.

Representative bodies

The Church of England has a legislative body, the General Synod. Synod can create two types of legislation, measures and canons. Measures have to be approved but cannot be amended by the British Parliament before receiving the Royal Assent and becoming part of the law of England. Canons require Royal Licence and Royal Assent, but form the law of the church, rather than the law of the land.

Another assembly is the Convocation of the English Clergy (older than the General Synod and its predecessor the Church Assembly). There are also diocesan synods and deanery synods.

House of Lords

Of the 44 diocesan archbishops and bishops in the Church of England, 26 are permitted to sit in the House of Lords. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York automatically have seats, as do the Bishops of London, Durham and Winchester. The remaining 21 seats are filled in order of seniority by consecration. It may take a diocesan bishop a number of years to reach the House of Lords, at which point he becomes a Lord Spiritual. The Bishop of Sodor and Man and the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe are not eligible to sit in the House of Lords as their dioceses lie outside the United Kingdom.

Financial situation

Although an established church, the Church of England does not receive any direct government support. Donations comprise its largest source of income, and it also relies heavily on the income from its various historic endowments. As of 2005, the Church of England had estimated total outgoings of around £900 million.

The Church of England manages an investment portfolio which is worth more than £8 billion.

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